First of all, I’d like to thank Burt Cottage for his essay. Secondly I’d like to admit that this started out as a posting in the comments section which quickly grew to ludicrous size as I’m eloquent and loquacious. Eventually I decided my reply was neither eloquent and loquacious agreement, nor disagreement, nor did it involve swear words (Yet, but the night is young) but rather was part of the 0% of postings that are eloquent and loquacious clarification of a point I didn’t adequately articulate before, and so, dammit (Ah, there it is!), I should expand it from a mere comment to a real blog entry.
So, Burt: Those are all valid points, and thanks or stating them so articulately. I think they’re worthy of discussion, and in fact Lem himself discusses all of these to a greater or lesser extent. Rather than restate his reasoning (Which is really extensive and detailed), I’ll just interpolate it, but I want to point out that when I first started reading “Microworlds” by Lem, I was entirely of the opinion you’ve stated. Who’s to say what’s high or low art, and how dare they? What kind of crazy anti-egalitarianism is that? By the end of the book, though, he’d won me over because Stanislaw Lem is actually on the short list of the greatest SF writers of the 20th century.
Were it anyone else, I wouldn’t have taken note. Among lots of the ‘critical’ elite - or at least the pop-critical elite - there’s an air of unmarried marriage counselors and childless child psychologists about them. Those that can’t do *Talk* about doing to hide the fact that they can’t do it. We’ve all seen or known examples of that, and it’s a valid point. Art is subjective, after all. What is brilliant to me is meaningless to you and vice versa. I love the early impressionists and surrealism, I can’t stand cubism. Why? There’s no attempt to delineate my likes and dislikes, I’m just wired to love Dali and yawn at Picasso. I’m not saying Picasso sucks, it’s just not my cup of tea.
However we’re all aware of Sturgeon’s law: “90% of everything is crap.” That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I love Hershey’s Kisses, and I really don’t like high-end Swiss chocolate. Again, it’s just the way I’m wired, I prefer the low quality stuff, and I loves me a good potboiler SF novel. In fact, I think we could argue that I’m pretty lowbrow: I’ve been reading Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” for six months now, and am only halfway through it. It’s undeniably a classic, everyone has been screaming at me to read it my entire life, but I’m unable to plow through it, and I don’t enjoy it. Where are the ray gun battles? Where’s the sudden Twilight Zone reality shift that makes us re-asses everything that went before and causes us to go “ooooh?” You know: Art! Instead, all I’ve got is a bunch of ignorant Oakies on a laborious fool’s errand who’s only point is to get screwed.
The purpose for Literary Criticism is not so much to ‘rate’ things, as to help us identify the difference between the seeds and the chaff. There’s not a value judgment here (Except among the pretentious), simply a case of identification. Why do we need this? Well, here’s one of Lem’s examples:
No one is ever going to mistake Crime and Punishment for being written by Mickey Spillane, but why is that? They both fit pretty solidly within the Crime genre. The difference is in intent, and in execution. In intent, C&P is attempting to explore and map out the frontiers of the human soul, whereas Spillane is simply trying to make some money selling books that can be read on the can. One book is content to operate entirely within the confines of a set genre, whereas the other transcends the genre. It uses it as a starting point, but then goes its own direction. Or, if you’d like another example we can use “Grapes of Wrath” versus J.G. Ballard’s “Hello America.” Both are unquestionably the literary equivalent of road stories: Hero goes on a journey, has adventures, learns a bit about himself in the process, and comes to some larger realization about life in the process. “Wrath” is clearly literature for the same reasons that C&P is literature and anything by Spillane isn’t, while the “Hello America” is a